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Teaching Kids to Think

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Learning to Work = Learning to Think = Learning to Learn

I'm writing from the Arizona CTE Summer Conference in Tucson, where for the last week hundreds of Arizona teachers have been meeting and training and planning. CTE is Career and Technical Education, everything from what we called home economics and vocational training when I was in high school, to programs like nursing and robotics and cloud computing.

Here's the kicker: CTE students across the state perform better on NCLB-mandated standardized tests, graduate at higher rates, and have a better chance of sticking it out at college than other high school graduates, including those in college-prep courses of study. And on top of all that, they graduate employable at a viable trade.

A caveat, for any budding Nate Silvers out there, I'm not claiming causality; I'm not saying that completing a multi-year CTE program is the sole reason these kids do better on AIMS (Arizona's response to No Child Left Behind) and better at college. But the correlation is undeniable, and I'll take anything that correlates to improved student performance and to increasing our students' success once they leave high school.

Why do these kids do better? Some of the success is undoubtedly attributable to the fact that they've learned one thing well, so they're open to learning more things. We're all like this, if we feel pretty self-confident about something -- our job performance, our karaoke talent, a compendious knowledge of cocktail recipes -- then we feel okay about ourselves, and we're ready to learn new things from other people. It's only when we're in a situation that makes us feel completely ignorant -- imagine the architecture talk I once attended, even got there early to get a good seat, only to find out the lecture was in French -- do we get shot down.

Apply this to students sitting in a high school class. A student who hasn't done well over the years, who is several grades behind in reading or math ability, is expected to sit attentively through a class he doesn't understand. Suppose you never quite got math, never developed an easy facility with the times tables, so the idea of variables, that "x" can be a number, isn't something you mastered. Now imagine sitting through a semester of Algebra II -- you're just like me in that French architecture talk. You not only get nothing out of the class, you probably end up being a distraction for the other students -- trust a teacher, teenagers can literally hear another student rolling her eyes.

But here's the real reason CTE kids outperform their peers, and why we need to support and expand these programs. CTE students learn to think, and to apply knowledge to new situations. They apply basic skills in increasingly complex situations -- getting the various items in a catering project to come out of the oven at the same time; by process of elimination, tracking down a glitch in a car engine or computer program; they recombine learned processes and thinking to provide emergency medical care to an accident victim -- so that acquired knowledge builds toward expertise.

This is more than just academic success, though it counts as that, too. It's way more than diagramming a sentence, or explaining how Santa Anna totally blew the Texas question. This is real-world knowledge, knowledge that makes these students better at the particular skill, and better potential employees and citizens.

And it's where we're headed on the academic side. Common Core Standards are all the rage, with the whole country headed to a set of national academic standards stressing higher-order thinking and problem solving. CTE is showing us the way.

So the next time you meet a teacher, thank them for their work, and for their willingness to do the work for so little pay.

But if the teacher you meet is CTE, is teaching the children in your community how to be better members of the society, listen respectfully to what they have to say, because you've just met someone who might just know how to get us where we need to go.